Todd Akin Forgets the Code

So the hottest political story coming out of the weekend was a set of self-destructive comments on abortion from the freshly-nominated Missouri Republican Senate candidate, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, who in defense of his no-exceptions position on banning abortion, allowed as how he understood the “female body” somehow prevents or ends pregnancy in cases of “legitimate” rape. This combination of late-medieval ignorance (from a member of the House Science Committee!) and piggish insensitivity is now in danger of earning Akin a one-way ticket to Palookaville if national Republicans can figure out a way to arrange one.

Before Akin is shown the door (if indeed that happens; it’s basically up to the leaders of anti-choice groups to decide if they want to defend a loyal lawmaker or sacrifice him to the Greater Good of the Cause), some reflection is in order on why people with his views keep popping up on general election ballots with alarming regularity.

The official position of the Republican Party, as reflected repeatedly in party platforms, congressional votes, thousands of speeches, and the positions expected of presidential and vice presidential candidates, is that full Human Life–not just “potential” human life, as suggested in Roe v. Wade, but the just-like-me-and-you life that deserves the full protection of the laws and constitution of the United States–begins at the moment of conception. Perhaps I’ve missed it, but I’ve yet to hear more than one or two statewide Republican candidates anywhere in the country express any doubt on this subject, or indicate that life in the legal sense might begin a bit later, whether it’s a week after conception or at the point of fetal viability.

If you actually believe that, then the rape-and-incest exceptions that GOP politicians routinely (though not uniformly) endorse are logically and morally difficult, implying as they do a balancing of equities between the existence and non-existence of life and, well, anything else. According to the strict “pro-life” point of view that the vast majority of GOP politicians embrace these days, from the moment of conception pregnancy should become compulsory. It may be sad that the victim of rape or incest is in that position, but in the end life is life and a zygote is ontologically identical to a grown woman, so no “balancing” is in order unless the woman’s own life is in danger.

Now as applied to such cases, this is not a very popular position, so most GOP (along with “pro-life” Democrats) anti-choicers simply abandon it, figuring if they can succeed in making pregnancy-after-conception compulsory in 99.9% of the cases, they can, at least temporarily, tolerate exceptions that make no logical or moral sense. And beyond those who make this jesuitical rationalization, of course, there are many who actually don’t believe any of this stuff. Some simply want to restrict abortion rights to those enjoyed and relied upon by middle-class white folks, and some just want to reflect a vague conservative belief that too many bad woman have sex and that any diminished likelihood of a pregnancy carried to term will let them get away with being bad.

But those of us who find anti-choice politics a messy gruel of fanaticism and dishonesty should not let the GOP or the “pro-life” movement dissociate themselves from people like Todd Akin too casually. What, specifically, did he say that they disagree with, and why? If it was just the offensive assertion that conception somehow depends on a woman’s consent, just say so. But if it’s just that Todd Akin drew unwelcome attention to what millions of people in the almighty conservative “base” believe, or because he just forgot how to use code words to disguise the radicalism of his position, it would be helpful to know that as well.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.